Do-It-Yourself Placebos

Ever since I started blogging about atheism — and thus started reading more about religion than I have at any time in my life since I was a religion major in college — I’ve been puzzled by a particular brand of pro-theism argument. It’s the “religion is good for you” arguments: religion gives people comfort, religion gives people hope, religion gives people moral guidance, etc. etc. etc.

There arguments always struck me as evidence of weakness rather than strength. In fact, it’s almost a concession of defeat. “Okay, maybe the arguments for religion being true aren’t so great… but the kids love us! It makes people so happy! Isn’t that enough?” And I’m baffled by the “self-administered placebo” quality of the arguments. I understand unconscious self-deception — we all do it — but conscious self-deception? How the heck does that work? Doesn’t a placebo stop working when you know it’s a placebo?

I still think it’s a weak argument. But I’m in this “trying to be relentlessly honest with myself” phase lately (probably because of that Mistakes Were made book). So I’ve been asking myself: Is that really true? Is the do- it- yourself placebo really that hard to understand? Is there really no area of my life where I know that something isn’t true, but act as if it were anyway because I find it useful?

And just off the top of my head, I came up with two:

Setting the alarm clock fifteen minutes fast. And decaf coffee.

Setting the alarm clock fast is a great example. I know that the alarm clock is fast. I’ve been setting the alarm clock fast for most of my adult life. In fact, the amount of time I’ve been setting it fast has been gradually sneaking up over the years: in my younger days I only set it five minutes fast, but I’m used to it being fast now, and I now have to set it a full fifteen minutes ahead.

But it still works. In my groggy, half-awake state, I still don’t quite grasp the whole “alarm clock being set fifteen minutes fast” concept. I see the time as 9:00; I think, “Shit, I have to get out of bed”; I don’t figure out until I’m out of bed that it was really only 8:45. The do-it-yourself placebo works.

Decaf coffee is an even better example. I don’t drink regular coffee at all anymore, unless I get it by mistake. I haven’t for years. I seem to have what the shrinks call an addictive personality, and I seem to be incapable of having just one or two cups of regular coffee a day. And regular coffee (or cola, which I also don’t drink any more) puts me on an ugly emotional rollercoaster, an unpleasant cycle of peaks and crashes that repeats several times a day. It’s not worth it.

But when I drink decaf coffee, I get just a little lift: enough to perk me up without putting me on the rollercoaster. It’s gotten to the point where I drink it almost every day… and I get cranky and listless when I can’t have it.

I used to tell myself that the reason for this was that even decaf cofee has just a little caffeine in it, and that’s what I was getting the lift from. But I’ve seen charts listing the relative amounts of caffeine in different substances… and decaf coffee is consistently at the bottom of the list, by a wide margin. It has a little caffeine, yes; but the amount is negligible. It’s definitely less than chocolate, for instance.

And yet decaf coffee gives that wide-eyed perked-up feeling way more than chocolate does.

Now, I’ve read that coffee is a complex drug plant, with caffeine as the main psychoactive ingredient but with other psychoactive ingredients as well. So it could be that that’s what’s going on. I’m getting the other components of coffee, ones that make me jittery and anxious without actually making me wakeful and alert.

But I’m dubious. I strongly suspect that what’s going on is almost entirely Pavlovian. I smell the coffee; I taste the coffee; I perk up. And that’s still true — even after seeing the caffeine charts, and knowing full well that, pharmacalogically, there’s little or nothing going on.

It’s a do-it-yourself placebo.

And it still works.

So I’m taking a poll. Do any of you have any do-it-yourself placebos? Are there any areas of your life where you act as if something were true, even though you know full well that it’s not, simply because you find it useful or comforting? Inquiring minds want to know.

Do-It-Yourself Placebos
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19 thoughts on “Do-It-Yourself Placebos

  1. 1

    And I’m baffled by the “self-administered placebo” quality of the arguments.
    I suspect because you’re overly stuck to the “placebo” idea — you seem to want to use that as the controlling metaphor for any “self-manipulation” that you find “surprising”.
    Unfortunately, that’s just wrong, because there’s a whole lot of different principles that can be used to manipulate people in various ways. The placebo effect is one such, which by nature cannot be “self-administered”. But there are other things that can…. Going down your list:
    Religion: Community is a basic human need. Some elements of community include shared rituals, including the review of community beliefs (that is, the ideas which differentiate the group from outsiders). Religion provides this as you describe, plus many other factors of community such as social support, “refereeing”, leadership, etc. And if you’ve grown up getting all that from religion, its not so easy to think that it could just as well be done without religion. It’s simply not fair to expect religionists to just say “oh you’re right, this God idea doesn’t make any sense, I’ll just have to tell everone I know I’m not part of their community anymore… by the way, where do atheists meet up on Sundays?”
    The Alarm Clock: Not even close to a “placebo”. Just as you describe, you’re taking advantage of your groggyness at the critical moment, using it to counter some other weakness of the same state. (Exactly what you’re countering would depend on why you can’t just set the clock for 8:30 and spend 15 minutes waking up….)
    Decaffeinated coffee. Just as you described, it’s straight-up Pavlov. Never mind that “D-word” on the label, your hindbrain knows “coffee” through your senses — sight, smell, taste. Your prior training says “coffee -> alert” (and alertness is something your hindbrain can do)!

  2. 2

    And some other things in the same self-manipulatory vein:
    tying a string on your finger to remember something
    A “hot toddy” to keep you in bed when you’re sick.
    Inspirational posters and such.
    Meditation in general!
    I’ve also had personal experience with a shamanic “miracle”, which interrupted my depressive episode — but only for two days. (As I found out later, nothing that technique can do will last much longer than two days.)

  3. 3

    Honey, you’re being too hard on yourself.
    I don’t think that tricking yourself with an alarm clock is a placebo. Its, well, a trick. It also works. The decaf coffee thing – dare I say it? Its a ritual. A more agnostic word would be “habit”. But don’t let religious people take the word “ritual” from the rest of us. I have a cup of coffee every day. I feel a lack without it. So, why not give in?
    I think a placebo would be chocolate instead of therapy or aspirin instead of Midol or a cat instead of a lover.

  4. 4

    Indeed. There is one specific, and fairly all-encompassing element of my life that, at least at the moment, I willfully ignore.
    I’m a naturalist and a determinist. And I cannot reconcile those two philosophical viewpoints with a belief in free will. But I live as though I have free will because I see no other option, and perhaps also because the idea of actually having zero control over anything that happens is incredibly depressing (I haven’t yet done the introspection I would need to do to be able to talk about the specific reasons with more confidence).
    At this point, I’m going to copy and paste a more lengthy discussion of this from my blog, because I recently wrote an entry on the subject and I do not have the stamina to write it again.
    “I’ve been bothered by the question [determinism vs. free will] for quite a while, but it returned to the forefront of my brain recently when I read David Wong’s “Embrace the Horror” article (which is available online, and really, really worth the read).
    I think I can contextualize my thoughts on free will pretty well with an anecdote from a conversation I had with a friend of mine named Alex.
    So sometime in the last year or so, I was at Alex’s house, watching the Animatrix. Specifically, The Second Rennaissance shorts. These are the ones that provide a historical backstory leading up to the events of the movies. And after watching it, I expressed my opinion that the premise of the backstory was stupid.
    The short version of the story as I understood it was that robots were created by man to serve, and one day, seemingly out of nowhere, this one robot, and then many others developed consciousness and a desire to live and all that and the conflict between robots wanting rights and humans wanting them to be servile units shot everything to hell.
    The writers of the story may have intended to imply that robots had consciousness and free will to begin with, but at the time I interpreted the story as suggesting that there was a sudden, unexpected onset of consciousness. The story seemed to me to suggest that the onset of conscious thought in robots was something accidental, perhaps the result of a small change or bug in programming. Or somehow, after gaining a certain level of complexity, they just, “poof”, became self-aware, and all was shot to hell.
    To me, that was like saying Microsoft Vista could suddenly, spontaneously develop consciousness from a small bug. If they were not programmed with consciousness in mind, it didn’t make sense to me that any small, unanticipated change could bridge the seemingly tremendous gap between a program following a series of instructions and something conscious. It seemed, to me, rather like suggesting that that binary calculator that adds and subtracts by rolling marbles into various slots (link: could, with enough slots and rolling pathways—with enough complexity–develop consciousness.
    But then, Alex said, you have to consider, how are we really different from that marble role? After all, if we really do consider the entire universe as obeying specific laws, then in a way, isn’t that marble roll an appropriate microcosm to the universe as a whole, and, thus, life, and consciousness? Or the balls on a pool table? No matter how complex such things get, no matter how many marble slots or pool balls there are, would anyone ever suggest that at a certain point or in a certain instance a marble roll or a bunch of billiard balls or Microsoft Vista could become conscious, self-directing entities? Because, after all, when it comes right down to it, aren’t they still just balls bouncing off one another?
    And if one refused to say that the marble roll or the billiard balls or Vista could be appropriate microcosms to the processes behind consciousness, then where is the difference?
    To me, it seems that either there is some fundamental difference between the processes that create consciousness and the processes behind these examples that I don’t understand, or else I cannot possibly be considered to be any more self-determining than the balls bouncing off one another on a pool table.
    And if I’m no more self-determining than ricocheting billiard balls, then am I not living lie by acting as though I have any ability to determine my own action whatsoever?
    That is my dilemma in a (sizable) nutshell.”

  5. 5

    And if I’m no more self-determining than ricocheting billiard balls, then am I not living lie by acting as though I have any ability to determine my own action whatsoever?
    Yogurtbacteria: That’s like saying, well, we’re all made of all these teeny tiny atoms, and those are mostly empty space…. how can all those tiny particles add up to solid objects? Scale matters, and the scale of “mechanistic behavior” in our physics is way, way, below anything we can directly perceive.
    We can determine a good deal of our own behavior because we have a great deal of internal state — some of it inherited from our predecessors, some of it “absorbed” from the environment. That doesn’t mean all of our “state” is available to our conscious mind, but that doesn’t really matter. We can do complicated things because we ourselves are (effing) complicated! And that includes hovering at the ice-cream counter deciding between Chocolate Death or Strawberry Seduction….

  6. 6

    First of all I have to thank you for bringing to my attention the book, “mistakes were made”. I devoured it in a day, and now need to go back through more carefully, but it was a very powerful experience. One of the things I noticed as I was reading were little “aha!” moments. I would think to myself, “Oh, that’s why that silly self-deluded person did that..”, and then wake up and realize that I was ready to attribute the crime of self-rationalization to everyone but myself. Very interesting in a self-introspection sort of way.
    Your question about self-deceit made me think of a Radio Lab program on lying I heard recently in which they discussed the research of a woman who was interested in sports performance. Specifically, why do some people do better than others, when their physical conditioning seems the same? And what she discovered was the the people who do really well are to the ones who are most adept at lying to themselves. This fits well with other research I’ve seen that depressed people actually have a more accurate concept of their abilities than non-depressed people. And I’ve found that when I get bogged down in a spiral of self doubt, sometimes it works to simply pretend as if I’m really good at what I do, even if the depressed part of me doesn’t believe it.

  7. 7

    yoghurtbacteria- interesting. I basically agree with you. The “inspiration” for me though was the book Godel, Escher, Bach. It has pretty interesting discussions on consciousness and free will- it pretty much convinced me that artificial intelligence can theoretically be created, and it’s consciousness wouldn’t be fundamentally different from our own. Also, Daniel Dennet’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea has some interesting stuff.

  8. 9

    Quick note to David: I was using a casual, conversational definition of the word/ concept “placebo,” not the specific, clinical definition. I would have thought this was clear from the context, but if it wasn’t, my apologies for my lack of clarity. I’m really not talking about the specific, clinical placebo effect; I’m talking about a more general concept — namely, the concept of consciously acting as if things are true that you know are not.
    And Elaine, thanks for your concern, but I’m really not being hard on myself. I don’t think this phenomenon is necessarily bad. Mostly I think it’s interesting and funny.
    And I think Kris’s point is very interesting and apt. I definitely have a version of that: an over-confident tendency to think, “Sure, I can do that! No, I don’t have any idea how, but I’m smart and I can learn! How hard can it be, anyway?”
    I’ve been burned by this on many occasions, when I’ve bitten off way more than I could chew. But it’s also the reason at least two of my books have been published. If I had thought, “I can’t edit a book by sex workers, I was only a stripper for a few months and I don’t know anything about editing a book anyway,” or, “I can’t edit a comics collection, I don’t really know that much about comics,” then my book career would be nowhere. The line between self-deception and plain old self-confidence is a fine one indeed.

  9. 11

    Sure – I set my watch 5 minutes fast. I *know* its fast, and I even compute the correct time all the time, so you’d think it would be useless. I *don’t* use it when I get up – I do that on a clock that’s within a couple of minutes of correct. I do it instead to get around a bad habit of leaving (say to catch a train or a bus, or go to a meeting) at the time I should be arriving. I don’t know why this is a problem I can’t seem to shake, but the self-administered placebo seems to work around it. I’ve done it for years now, and I have not yet needed to set it beyond 5 minutes.
    However, with religious belief I don’t think it’s that people have conceded your argument and use the “beneficial value” argument as a backup in the absence of any reason to believe, it’s that they don’t even want to consider</i – your argument; the "beneficial value" argument is a way of avoiding even thinking about the merits of your case – a way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance of really considering the possibility that your argument has merit – jump to a specious but comforting argument until they can "forget" the argument they recognize has the potential to be problematic.
    Actually, I've been meaning to write something on the positive value of placebos for a while, because I think it relates very much to something else you (and many skeptics) often write about. As soon as I get a little time…

  10. 12

    Part of one sentence got lost in my post – I must have typed over it.
    “However, with religious belief I don’t think it’s that people have conceded your argument and use the “beneficial value” argument as a backup in the absence of any reason to believe, it’s that they don’t even want to consider…” the possibility that your argument may have merit, and this is a handy comfort argument to distract you both somewhere else while they’e busy avoiding cognitive dissonance.

  11. 13

    I admit to being guilty of buying lottery tickets, because it helps feed my daydream that someday I will be able to escape the financial hole into which I have dug myself. I know the odds, and yet each time I buy one I plan what I will do with the money should I win it (and it’s mostly for the good of society, trust me.)
    Two bucks a week, which I would rather spend on a placebo than on a single over-priced venti.

  12. 14

    First, sorry for the unmarked quotes in my previous comments. I keep forgetting that this place doesn’t allow italics or bold. (And Greta, can you *please* do something about that?)
    Greta, the only thing that *wasn’t* clear about your post was, specifically, your (mis)usage of the word “placebo”. My point is merely that your “casual” usage was in fact misleading with respect to the stuff you were thinking about, because it conflates too many, fundamentally different, things.
    “I’m talking about a more general concept — namely, the concept of consciously acting as if things are true that you know are not”
    That doesn’t match the examples you came up with… all were cases of “self-deception” in various forms — more specifically, using one part of your mind to deceive another. But as noted above, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
    With respect to the research on depressives, I would personally say that autistics suggest that the causation may well run the other way… from my own experience, autistic types find it much harder than normal folks to deceive themselves (for the same reasons they have trouble lying to others) and that *makes* them prone to depression!

  13. 15

    Reply To Dave:
    That makes sense, but it doesn’t seem to me that it bridges the most important gap. For me, the problem is that, while additional complexity can accomplish a lot, I can conceive of no mechanism by which an increase in the complexity of something could change it from, conceptually, a bunch of billiard balls, to something with real self-determination. And I don’t see how an increase in complexity alone could give rise to real consciousness.
    Far be it from me to say that because I can’t conceptualize a way in which sufficient complexity could give rise to consciousness/self-determination/free will, that it can’t. I don’t make the assumption that it’s impossible simply because I can’t see a way myself. But without a reasonable explanation of that mechanism or an ability to see any way in which it might work, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lean in the opposite direction.
    And I just don’t see passing a certain threshold of complexity as sufficient explanation for a system becoming a self-determining entity. It seems to me that there must be more to it than that, some more specific mechanism that causes it. After all, otherwise, wouldn’t we expect any system of a certain size (and, thus, a certain level of complexity) to be self-determining?

  14. 16

    “And I just don’t see passing a certain threshold of complexity as sufficient explanation for a system becoming a self-determining entity. It seems to me that there must be more to it than that, some more specific mechanism that causes it.”
    Indeed this is true… simply because something is complex doesn’t mean it’s headed for self-determination, much less self-awareness. But consider entropy; If a complex entity *isn’t* “self-determined” to some degree, then it will inevitably decay over time. It can certainly be maintained by an external agency (human repairmen/gardeners), but that just makes it part of a larger system including the humans.
    If any system isn’t defending its condition, that condition will decay and eventually collapse into something else. Note that over the long term, entropy itself provides a selection rule for evolution! That which preserves itself, remains. That which duplicates itself has a backup copy in case of disaster. And so on….
    Life, almost by definition, is that portion of matter which is capable of actively maintaining its internal state against perturbation. “Intelligence”, as most broadly defined, can be considered as the ability to find appropriate responses to events in general, *especially* to unexpected or troublesome events. “Consciousness” is just the internal perspective on the workings of our sort of intelligence.

  15. 17

    Reply To Dave:
    “Life, almost by definition, is that portion of matter which is capable of actively maintaining its internal state against perturbation. “Intelligence”, as most broadly defined, can be considered as the ability to find appropriate responses to events in general, *especially* to unexpected or troublesome events. “Consciousness” is just the internal perspective on the workings of our sort of intelligence.”
    But where does the ability to have that perspective come from? It still seems to me that no matter how advanced or complex a thing you create, even a tremendously adaptive and effective Von Neumann machine doesn’t explain the bridging of that gap. Even where we could write a complex, adaptive program of instructions for such a machine, in the end, it would be a giant machine–a giant series of reactions running based on whatever means we used to “program” those reactions. To me, that is still fundamentally different from a machine that performs actions by it’s own choice–by it’s own desire to perform them or not perform them.
    It still seems to me that no matter how complex you make a series of instructions by which something operates, it is still, in the end, a series of instructions.

  16. 18

    You may want to look into a point of view called “compatibilism”, which has espoused by people as different in overall outlook as John Calvin and Daniel Dennett. Compatibilism is the view that not only is determinism not antithetical to free will, but if anything it is INdeterminism that is.
    Look at it this way: when you make a free decision, what you are actually doing is weighing your desires, the information available to you, constraints and duties you have accepted, etc. Even if you can’t actually articulate the reasons for your decision, they are there and they determine your decision. If you like chocolate and hate vanilla, you will (barring other reasons coming into play) always choose chocolate over vanilla. If sometimes you randomly chose vanilla over chocolate, despite that vanilla is NOT what you want, you would feel less free, not more.
    But your desires don’t come out of thin air. Your desires are shaped by your experiences, your memories, your genes, etc. Same goes for your knowledge and commitments.
    A compatibilist maintains that ‘self-determination’ amounts to being determined by the self–even if the self itself is determined by its past actions and the overall unfolding of the world.
    Now, of course, not just anything counts as a self capable of having free will–a self must be capable of doing things like keeping track of some goals and desires, integrating knowledge about the world, weighing possible choices as to how well they are likely to fulfill the desires in order to choose among them, and translating these choices into some sort of action. These are pretty much a minimal set of requirements. To produce exactly the subjective experience of choice that humans feel would quite likely take something in addition, and nobody knows for sure what. But nobody knows for sure what would be required to produce the subjective experience of ‘itchiness’ that humans have either, so the one needn’t bother you more than the other. (Assuming you’re still with me, anyway.)
    If you want to know more about compatibilism from a physicalist perspective, you might want to look for Dennett’s _Free Will Evolves_ or _Consciousness Explained_. To some extent it may be one of those ideas that just needs to hit you, but it hit me while reading Dennett.

  17. 19

    I’m not sure if this counts, but a part of my ethical system could be considered a self-administered placebo. I’ve adopted a way of thinking that assumes that “what goes around comes around”, but on a somewhat larger scale–that somehow, some way, you will tend to have more good things happen to you if you’re good to other people. I know it’s entirely conjecture, to take it as far as I have (i.e., beyond just human give and take), but it’s comforting, it has the practical effect of helping me live a better life anyway, and I don’t take it TOO seriously.

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